Thursday 23 September 2010

Rehearsal Blog 6: “The Heartbeat of the Show”

Taking us up to the end of Week 3, here's Rehearsal Blog 6 from Lauren:
Post 6: “The Heartbeat of the Show”
A new day bought new enthusiasm and fresh ideas to the group. Chris had written a text entitled A Series of (Very) Short Pieces About What People Are Doing Right Now, essentially a (very) long list of one sentence summations of stories, both previously collected and new inventions. Alex, Jorge and Chris were (very) excited at this new development, believing it to be potentially the “heartbeat of the show”.

Various improvisations were tried, with Chris reading the text and Alex and Jorge trying ‘interruptions’ to flesh out certain stories if they came to mind. This felt like an promising structure for the show, and in the afternoon was tried again with the order of the list randomised, and shared between the three of them. I think everyone went home feeling a lot of progress had been made that day.

On Thursday, a need to develop shorter versions of the stories was felt, as all the texts up to that point had been at least five minutes long, and whilst they were liked by the group, it would have made for a very long show if all the stories were fictionalised at such length. This new brevity was mingled with the text developed so far, in a repetition of the ...What People Are Doing Right Now improvisation later in the day. Interruptions were both pre-planned and improvised with certain sentences triggering certain set pieces that have previously been developed.

This was the first attempt at performing an entire show with the material, so some things worked well and some didn’t; Jorges’ wailing was a personal highlight! The performers were generally pleased with how well it went for the first try, and how well it seemed to flow. Overall another good day.

With some overnight perspective, the group discussed the run-through and agreed that the content was good, but that they needed structure and to inject more emotion. There was a lot of pacing around thinking what to do next rather than feeling it was ok to sit to one side, and the function of the live drawing needed to be clarified.

A possible introduction idea was developed by all three; that of relating Sheffield to the rest of the world, and of Jorge speaking in Portuguese and Chris attempting to translate. This was developed for the rest of the day, as well as an exercise where Alex attempted to draw a photograph based on Chris’ description of it.

On Friday we were also joined by Clive Eggington, photographer and co-founder of Archive Sheffield, an organisation hoping to: “create new photographic images to depict and preserve the diversity of the cities population”. He is hoping to take photos right through the process, and everyone is happy to have him onboard, and are also hoping to star in one of his stories! It feels a bit surreal to have two levels of documentation going on in the room, but I’m sure we’ll get used to it...

Monday 20 September 2010

Rehearsal Blog: All These Events Are Happening Now

So, here's Lauren's blog post from the start of last week - Week 3. This takes us up to the point where we had to confront the fact that the idea that we were so excited about in Week 2, whilst visually very strong, was actually getting in the way of performance.

These can be tough decisions. Rachael reminded me of an early version of 9 Billion Miles From Home at Chelsea Theatre, in which we had a field of suspended stars or globes, each beautifully, individually lit. They looked great. But getting up to do anything in amongst them was confusing and impractical. They didn't last into the next stage of the process, but they informed the circular obsession of the version of the show that followed. It is proving to be the case here, too, I think...but, anyway, over to Lauren.

Post 5: “All These Events are Happening Now”

The start of the third week saw the move to the Lyceum rehearsal space, which gave the performers more space and room for a bigger screen, so that the projection aspect of the show could be developed more effectively.

With Rachael in rehearsal at the start of the week, it was seen as a good time to check everyone was happy with the progress made so far, and to compare notes regarding what the performers thought the show was at this point. There was a feeling that the format needed to be decided upon soon, to have as much time as possible to refine the content, as the set design was very simple.

Discussing their ideas of what the show is, proved a point the performers are making in What I Heard; we each have our own version of the world in our heads, never exactly the same as anyone else’s. There were debates regarding the differences in each others’ visions; stories versus characters, nations versus individuals, the function of the stage props and what they represent, whether the show should have discrete sections or should appear to flow as one narrative.

One point agreed on was that the show needed to convey that all the events they mention are happening everywhere, all the time. At the moment there were long texts about one story, but there needed to be ‘micro-narratives’ featuring others, to make the world the performers are creating richer and more textured.

In the afternoon, Alex, Jorge and Chris read through all the text that had been written so far. Reacting to this, Rachael wondered whether the show was actually commenting on the world it was describing. There was disagreement about this, as the tone in which some stories are told in could be thought of as commenting on them.

On Tuesday, the performers met with the set & prop builders, and this forced the performers to clarify their thoughts regarding the use and number of ‘flat daddies’ in the show. They seemed important to include because they have been the hook for getting many people interested in the project from the start, but including many of them may have spatial problems on stage.

These doubts were cemented with the deconstruction of the ‘hijack’ text, again with Rachael and Capela offering feedback. Working out what all three were to do whilst the text is performed by Chris quickly exposed weaknesses in that 'set piece', but also the need for more brevity in dealing with most of the stories in the show. To remedy this Rachael suggested an exercise, in which all three should write material where stories are told just through dialogue, or in the third person.

At the end of the day, energy felt very low and there was a bit of mental panic about throwing out another set design, but as always, tomorrow was another day...

Lauren's photos of the rehearsal process are on her Flickr page, here.

Monday 13 September 2010

Society of Cartographers Summer School

Lauren's report from Manchester...

Post 4: What I Heard About The World - Research Table at The Society of Cartographers Summer School

On Thursday 9th, the What I Heard team took a day off from rehearsals, to take part in the Society of Cartographers’ 46th Summer School in Manchester. There was some concern, given the previous day’s breakthrough, that the day in manchester might be a bit of an interruption to the devising process, but in the end it turned out to be worthwhile for everyone.

The research table had been run a few times before, so Chris, Alex and Jorge were familiar with the format, so they decided to introduce countries to the map at random rather than alphabetically. Chris then had to place the post-it note representing that country from memory, Jorge read aloud the long and short form of the country’s name in its native tongue, then any stories were collected. Where nothing new came up, or there were no delegates present, pre-gathered stories were re-used.

The delegates seemed to enjoy the improvised, ‘lo-fi’ nature of the map, and had no hesitation in telling Chris to rearrange his post-its when inaccurate (FYI, St Kitts and Nevis is North of St Lucia, not the other way round...). The nature of what a country is has been discussed by the performers before, but it became especially prescient in the company of experts, and there were many interesting discussions about mapping, borders, the history and politics of dividing up the world. We even learnt a new word: exclave.

Alex gave a talk about the development of What I Heard in the afternoon which was warmly received, and we received several new stories from delegates, which will be looked at further next week, and perhaps worked into the show.

Photos can be found at:

AudioBoos of Alex’s talk can be found here: Part 1 and Part 2

Rehearsal Blog 3

Here's Lauren's report on Week 2's work in Sheffield:

Post 3: What I Heard About The World Rehearsals Week 2

The start of the second week saw the first weekly visit by Rachael Walton, co-artistic director of Third Angel, and we were also joined by José Cappela, co-artistic director of Mala Voadora with Jorge. This gave the performers the opportunity to hear the opinions and ideas of people new to any developments in the rehearsal space.

Through analysing their progress, it was decided by everyone that greater clarity was needed on what the show is about, and how the stories that have been collected will be deployed. Jorge, Capela and Rachael focused on investigating possible connections between stories, whilst Alex and Chris wrote some potential text for the show, which also developed the way the stories will be blended into one coherent whole.

This naturally led onto discussion as to the role the table/stage will play. Once props were introduced, do they stay there or are they removed? Do performers stay on the stage throughout, or get off it when they are not playing an active part in the show? Should the stage be sloped or flat? Do we even need a stage? This was a source of much debate through the week, but on Wednesday there was a breakthrough that Alex, Jorge and Chris were all excited about (something that I obviously can’t tell you without spoiling the show, sorry!)

It felt important that from now on the performers should set out how they will use their devising time at the start of the day (e.g. improvise around a text for an hour, think about set design for a morning), rather than working where their thoughts took them. This ensured there was tangible progress at the end of each day, which in turn maintains motivation and energy levels through the process, and staves off panic of course!

We all have our own idea of what the world is (like the old adage that if you ask people to imagine a tree, everyone pictures a different tree), so the performers needed to clarify each others’ perception of the world, and that the world the show describes is the performers’ collective version of it. The ‘real’ world and the performers’ world have a relationship with eachother, but they are not the same thing. The performers’ description of the world they have heard about allows the audience to imagine and question the version of the world they hold in their heads.

Overall, a lot of progress was made in the second week, and whilst what a lot of what was developed in the first week has now been scrapped, I think everyone is more satisfied with what has replaced it.

Wednesday 8 September 2010

Rehearsal Blog 2

Here's the next update from our Intern Lauren Stanley, for the latter half of Week 1 of devising.
Post 2: What I Heard About The World: Rehearsals Days Three and Four
Over the next couple of days, further ways of developing the source material were explored. Alex, Jorge and Chris devised a “There’s a place...” exercise, in which they took it in turns to summarise stories of their choosing in short statements. The statements applied to a specific story, but were not allowed to be explicit about the country they referred to. Telling the listener about a country without naming it discourages them from defining places by glib facts or stereotypes, something the performers were determined to avoid. Some examples were:

• There’s a place where you can’t chew gum.

• There’s a place that's disappearing.

• There’s a place where you’re only allowed one of sixteen haircuts.

• There’s a place where choirs mime.

• There’s a place where soldiers are made out of cardboard.

• There’s a place where you can buy a ticket for a plane that never leaves the ground.

• There’s a place where rich people live in containers.

• There’s a place where people are paid to cry.

Again this highlighted which stories are most familiar to the performers, and which they feel have the most potential, but they felt it was an effective, inspirational exercise. It forced them to be concise and get to the heart of the stories, but does this mean that they are being oversimplified because the performers are so familiar with them? It was decided that this was a nice way to make the stories epithetical and memorable, but what will the audience take from them if they are unfamiliar with the wider story?

The show needs a sense of a journey, a sense of having been somewhere, and returning at the end of it. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the show follows a coherent narrative, just that it can’t be a list of stories strung together, leaving the audience to make of them what they will. The idea of using one story to start and end the show was raised again, and that a framework for the form of the show needs to be decided early to better inform the rest of the devising process: “We need to sit down and make decisions!”

Ideas were then suggested for stories that could be linked. The realisation that 71 stories would not fit into the show quickly followed, and wondering how much the stories could be mixed together. With this there is a danger that the show becomes about one character with hundreds of wacky anecdotes to tell. Instead there should be a mix of Alex, Jorge and Chris performing as themselves, the person they heard the story from, the people within the story, or a fictional person that reacts to or is linked to the story.

The connections exercise was then repeated, but this time only narrative connections were allowed (for example you can’t link two stories because they both mention planes). This threw up some great connections, with stories told in a mix of first and third person. There were moments of humour without forcing gags into the narrative, and the beginnings of ideas of how to tell the stories with drawings, props and interactions between the performers. This felt like a real confidence boost that the material was good, and that the stories were worth telling.

Monday 6 September 2010

Rehearsal Blog 1

Our intern on What I Heard About The World is Lauren Stanley, film and installation maker and graduate of Sheffield Hallam University. She's looking after video tech in the rehearsal room, and documenting the process for us. It's interesting for me to see how the process reads to someone new to it. Here's her first response to the work.

What I Heard About The World
Rehearsal Days One and Two

So, Day One. A bit of a first-day-at-school feeling, very new territory for me if no-one else, and a sense of not being sure what was going to happen. After setting up the stage/table, Alex, Jorge and Chris starting sifting through all the stories they had collated through previous Research Table
events and requests from the public, deciding which they wanted to incorporate into the show. This raised some fundamental questions as to what they wanted the show to say, and what form it should take. It was believed that through discussion of the individual stories an overriding message would emerge. It felt important that although the show is fictionalising, they had corroborated information through asking for stories. The stories are largely about fakes and deceptions, but the stories themselves are factual, and that should be highlighted in the show.

There was also an acknowledgement of the danger of describing the world through stories to patronise or even be derogatory, the 'aren't foreigners weird' angle needs to be avoided, or at least mentioned in the show as something they wanted to avoid. One possibility was to take a story, such as Caterpillar Milk,
and analyse the underlying presumptions the audience might make about others based on it.

On Day Two once all the stories they were potentially interested in had been decided on, Alex, Chris and Jorge started generating material through improvisation exercises and further discussion. At this stage rules were set on the improvisations to force them to think more laterally about how to use the stories. First was the connections exercise, where the they all picked six stories at random, and took it in turns to connect them.

They then tried a character exercise, in which one person chose a story at random, and asked one of the others to improvise a monologue, from the point of view of a character involved in the story. This threw up some new perspectives on the stories (my personal highlight being Jorge’s uncanny wax baby...), and potentially more interesting ways of telling the story to an audience.

These exercises made them aware of which stories they were most familiar with, and cemented a belief that the show should be one ‘shaggy dog’ narrative, made up of elements of lots of stories, perhaps with one framing the whole by starting and ending the show.

Finally, the 'it's about' exercise helped to clarify what the three of them wanted the show to explore. Some ideas were:
trying to understand what authenticity is
how in order to to know where you are, you have to have an idea of where everything else is.
a story standing in for somewhere you’ve never been
bringing a far away thing closer.
6 and a half billion people
the difference between history and story
the difference between biscuits and cookies...

If it covers all that, it should be one hell of a show!

Wednesday 1 September 2010

Research Table at Forest Fringe

What I Heard About The World - Research Table at Forest Fringe, Edinburgh, 21 August 2010. 11am - 11pm, Afghanistan - Zimbabwe (with 4 minutes to spare). Performed by Jorge Andrade, Alexander Kelly and Chris Thorpe.

Thanks to everyone who came in and spent time with us, and/or contributed a story, and particular thanks to Andy Field, Deborah Pearson, Ellie Dubois, Freya Millward and the whole Forest Fringe team of volunteers and the Forest cafe staff. It was a great day.

Photographs by Isa Maubach (thank you Isa).